As the U.S. gradually unburies itself from the Covid-19 pandemic, some people have been sounding the alarm about looming shortages of physicians and nurses. They should be equally worried about shortages of others in the health care workforce, like medical assistants, pharmacy technicians, dental assistants, and more.
When many states and local jurisdictions began mandating stay-at-home orders, Americans began canceling regular checkups and visits to their health care providers for managing chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Similarly, medical offices began deferring elective services and limiting their office hours and even staff.
While many doctors, nurses, and other health care providers were able to continue seeing their patients via telehealth during the pandemic, many entry-level people in the health care workforce, like medical assistants, were among the first to disappear — partly due to the reduced utilization of medical services and partly due to the need to socially distance and limit staff. Others had their work hours reduced or were laid off.
Now that vaccination rates are on the rise and a semblance of normalcy begins to emerge, Americans will be returning to their health care providers’ offices. This will undeniably lead to a huge spike in demand for health care workers — both clinical and administrative staff — who help keep the health care system running.
As medical offices and health care facilities try to staff back up, many will face difficulties. During the pandemic, many in the health care workforce had no choice but to find new careers and employment, particularly those working in ambulatory care. While some may return, others may not.
Although about 50,000 jobs have been added to the health care sector since January, the U.S. will need more than 500,000 jobs to get back to pre-pandemic levels. This means that a lot of new workers will need to be trained to replace those who have left the workforce and increase staffing to meet the demand for health care services.
Despite this increased demand for health care workers, the pipeline of workers being prepared for these roles has slowed to a trickle. Continued, severe limitations on in-class learning, along with the high cost of tuition, have made education much more difficult to pursue for many low- and middle-wage workers and for those economically hit hardest by Covid-19.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment in community colleges — where many enroll to enter the professional workforce for the first time or look to change career paths — was down 10% in 2020 compared to the previous year, with even sharper declines among first-generation immigrant, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. Thus, those who stand to gain the most from a good entry-level job will have a harder time getting employment — further exacerbating existing socioeconomic and racial disparities.
What can be done about this?
One priority should be to support the nearly 15 million of Americans whose jobs were displaced by the pandemic and who are trying to reenter the workforce. With millions of Americans staying home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and many jobs shifting to remote work, industries and professions in tourism, construction, hospitality, food service, manufacturing, and construction had some of the highest job losses during the pandemic.
Although many of these industries will slowly recover as vaccination rates go up and Americans feel safer about leaving their homes, many workers may feel the need to transition and upskill into professions that pay better, are more secure, and are less vulnerable to economic turbulence.
These workers should be supported in entering fields that are higher paying, face growing need for skilled workers, and have the potential for career growth. Emerging partnerships like the SkillUp Coalition, of which my company is a member, are doing just that: working with local education and workforce organizations to help displaced workers get the skills and training they need to navigate a new economy and bridge that gap.
It is also incumbent on the training community, which I am part of, to change its practices. We need to make training programs shorter and more affordable to help ensure that more people can quickly enter entry-level health care positions. We also need to make sure that these programs are focused on the essential skills employers need and are aligned with national standards and competencies, which include national certifications and licenses. One way to do this is through implementing more apprenticeship-type programs, such as those at Kalkaska Memorial Health Center in Michigan, that enable people to learn while they earn.
Finally, federal and state governments need to invest in job creation and training to meet the need for expanding the health care workforce. In March, President Biden announced the American Jobs Plan, with its goal to create jobs for a new economy, including raising wages and benefits for home care workers. Although it is an ambitious plan, it is still in the early stages of negotiations and most likely will not be passed into law until much later this year. By then, however, the shortage of health care workers will only have gotten worse.
Once most Americans are vaccinated and the country opens back up, there will be no rest for the health care system or its workers. The surge of pandemic-related demand will be replaced by the normal rhythms of life — which has been collectively neglected over the past year. If we do not start preparing now by investing in training and support for displaced workers and those trying to return to the labor market or enter into it, we’ll be unable to meet the coming demand for health care and will be right back where we started a year ago: in the middle of a health care crisis, with a long road ahead.
Jaime Nguyen, a physician with a background in public health and medical education, is the director of allied health programs at Penn Foster, an online provider of workforce training.
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